Variety reports that Warner Bros. and DC Comics have won a lawsuit brought by the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel who contended that the license fees that the studio paid its corporate sibling DC Comics for the rights to Superman amounted to a “sweetheart deal.”  U.S. Judge Stephen G. Larson ruled that the payments Warner Bros. made to DC Comics for the 2006 movie Superman Returns amounted to “fair market value” for the property. 


The judge set a December 1st trial date for a hearing to determine the allocation of profits to the heirs.  Last year the Siegel heirs won a decision that awarded them half of the copyright for the Superman property.


Judge Larson based his ruling on a comparison with deals made for other comic book characters including Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the X-Men.  The plaintiffs said that the judge should have considered the more lucrative deals that studios have struck with novelists such as Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton.


But the judge’s ruling was not a clean sweep for Warners.  The judge found that the Warners/DC Superman movie agreement was deficient in one respect--unlike the other superhero movie deals, it had no "use it or lose it" reversion clause, something that he noted in his decision in such a way that puts pressure on Warner Bros. to produce another Superman film in a hurry.  Variety quoted the Siegel’s lawyer Marc Toberoff: “The Court pointedly ruled that if Warner Bros. does not start production on another Superman film by 2011, the Siegels will be able to sue to recover their damages.” 


Toberoff also contends that although the Siegels lost this portion of the case, “the entire accounting action pales in comparison to the fact that in 2013, the Siegels, along with the estate of Joe Shuster, will own the entire original copyright to Superman, and neither DC Comics nor Warner Bros. will be able to exploit any new Superman works without a license from the Siegels and Shusters.”


Some interesting facts came to light as a result of the Siegel’s legal action.  DC was paid a total of $13.6 million by Warners for Superman Returns.  For Smallville DC receives $45,000 per episodes plus 3% of the first-dollar gross for the first $1.5 million and 5% thereafter.  While the per-episode licensing fee is not very impressive, the percentages could amount to something substantial if Smallville goes wide in syndication.


ICv2 received a statement from a spokesperson for DC Comics, who expressed satisfaction with the decision:  “DC Comics and Warner Bros. Entertainment are very gratified by the court’s thorough and well-reasoned decision in this matter. The decision validates what DC and Warner Bros. have maintained from the beginning, which is that when they do business with each other, they always strive for – and achieve – fair market value in their transactions.  We are very pleased that the court found there was no merit to plaintiffs’ position that the Superman deals were unfair to DC Comics and, by extension, the plaintiffs.”